Michael Ellis – 2022 Speech on Lord Lebedev Joining the House of Lords

The speech made by Michael Ellis, the Paymaster General, in the House of Commons on 29 March 2022.

Let me first address the situation in Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken of the Prime Minister and people of the United Kingdom as being among his greatest allies, and the Kremlin has spoken of the United Kingdom as a leading opponent. I am proud of that position, and we will continue to support Ukraine—as I know will the whole House—and the courageous people of that sovereign and independent country.

The motion before the House calls on the Government to release advice provided by or to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and relevant communications thereto. The Government regret today’s motion for any number of reasons—I will come on to those—but particularly because, for the first time in many decades there is a war in Europe, and there are many pressing domestic concerns and issues. It is somewhat surprising that the Opposition have brought forward for discussion this afternoon an ad hominem attack on a single individual.

Although Parliament has unlimited power to call for papers, persons and records, historically the House has exercised restraint in the use of that power, and for good reason. That the motion seeks not to show restraint is, in my submission, unfortunate. I accept that Parliament has a vital scrutiny role and should use its power to facilitate it, but that does not extend to making use of the procedures of this place to single out an individual by making unsavoury and ad hominem attacks of the kind we have heard and will be hearing this afternoon.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Ellis

Before I give way, which I will be happy to do, may I gently point out to the Opposition that—and I say this in all candour—they ought to be careful of intolerant messaging? Not all Russians are our enemy. Many British citizens of Russian extraction came to this country with a view to an opposition to President Putin. People cancelling Tchaikovsky concerts is not appropriate, and Labour seeking to whip up anti-Russian feeling or casting all persons of Russian extraction in a negative light is wrong.

Furthermore, the disclosure of the information sought here today would undermine the very role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Labour is asking for something that would break the appointments process in the House of Lords. It would chip away at the careful vetting procedures and the exchange of information that necessarily has to be discreet.

Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Will the Minister give way?

Michael Ellis

If I may, I will just finish this thought.

Let us not forget that the commission of which we are speaking is independent, expert, advisory, and cross-party, with Labour, Liberal and Conservative members, and it was set up by Tony Blair and the Labour party in the year 2000—more than 20 years ago.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)

On the Minister’s point about Labour being Russophobic, I lived and worked in Russia for three years as director of the British Council in St Petersburg, and we worked every day with ordinary Russians—good people—who want that country to be a normal country connected to the rest of the world. The people we are talking about today are not ordinary Russians. We are talking about a former KGB spy and the woman who was married to a former deputy Finance Minister who has given millions of pounds to the Conservative party. I humbly ask the Minister to withdraw the comment about Russophobia. We have no problem with the Russian people; we have a big problem with what he is talking about today.

Michael Ellis

No, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In fact, the noble Lord who is the subject of this debate is not a Conservative party donor and never has been, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong on all those fronts. The motion before the House today is what I have said it is.

Shaun Bailey

Further to the point of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), I wonder whether my right hon. Friend and learned Friend could give me his thoughts on this tweet that has just come through, which contains this from the Leader of the Opposition:

“Congratulations on your elevation to the House of Lords. All best wishes, Keir”?

Is what is good for the goose good for the gander? What does the Minister think about that?

Michael Ellis

It has been mentioned that Lord Lebedev has been tweeting this afternoon, and I understand that he has tweeted in the past few minutes that the Leader of the Opposition congratulated him on his appointment as a peer. That must be rather embarrassing for the Labour party.

Matt Western

I sometimes think that the Minister must be the Derek Underwood of the Front Bench in that he is the nightwatchman defending the indefensible.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) just said, we are clearly talking about someone with huge influence who has worked closely with the Prime Minister and collaborated in delivering certain election victories for him as the Mayor of London.

Michael Ellis

Lord Lebedev is a British citizen of Russian extraction who, I understand, had his primary and secondary education in this country. I see no logic in the Labour party’s assessment.

In order to put this issue in its true context, it is necessary to remind hon. Members of the process for nominations for peerages. The power to confer a peerage, with the entitlement to sit in the House of Lords, is vested in Her Majesty the Queen and is exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. It is a long-established feature of our constitutional arrangements. The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament, as he is in all matters, and to the people of the country for any nominations he makes.

Two events have served to shape that process. First, the House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of hereditary peers to pass membership of the other place down through their families. Secondly, the House of Lords Appointments Commission was created in May 2000—under Labour, which now wishes to break it—and it recommends individuals for appointment as non-party political life peers, such as those on the Cross Benches, and has political representation from the three parties within its members. The vetting process is at the heart of its work. The commission seeks to ensure the highest standards of propriety, and I include party political nominees within that.

It does not apply in the instant case, but it should not be a matter of opprobrium that somebody be a party political supporter. Labour has hundreds of peers in the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats have some 83 peers despite them having barely enough Members of Parliament to fill a minicab. There is nothing wrong with having a political affiliation.

The House of Lords Appointments Commission seeks advice from a number of sources during its deliberations. Any time we ask any independent advisory body to obtain advice, and it does so discreetly and in confidence, if we seek to break that process, said body will not be able to function. Once all the evidence has been considered, the commission will either advise the Prime Minister that it has no concerns about an appointment or will draw its concerns to the Prime Minister’s attention. It is a long-standing position that it is for the Prime Minister of the day to recommend appointments to the House of Lords. For that reason, the Prime Minister continues to place great weight on the commission’s careful and considered advice before making any recommendations. That arrangement has served successive Prime Ministers of both parties but, as in other areas, they must carefully balance a range of evidence.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to a Liberal Democrat, few as we are. Nevertheless, I draw his attention to another tweet from Lord Lebedev:

“Openness and transparency are pillars of our democratic system, so I welcome the call for security advice about me…to be released. I have nothing to hide.”

The Minister is highlighting the fact that the appointment was questioned by that commission, so I do not see his argument, because it sounds like there were concerns. If Lord Lebedev has nothing to hide and the commission made its recommendation, that prompts the question: what do the Government have to hide?

Michael Ellis

I thank the hon. Lady for asking that question. This is not about any one individual. The Opposition are seeking it to be about one individual who cannot answer for himself in this House, which is wrong. The Government are seeking to protect the system, so even if Lord Lebedev has said that he does not mind, it is not, with the greatest respect, only about him; this is about protecting the system, because the House of Lords Appointments Commission would not be able to function.

The Leader of the Opposition wrote to the commission earlier this month and received a reply a week or two ago, which I believe is in the public domain, in which it outlined the process and did not highlight any problems. The reality is that the Government are seeking to protect a system that has worked well for 22 years, so I ask the House to bear that in mind.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)

The Minister has said that the House of Lords Appointments Commission takes a variety of information from a variety of sources and organisations. That is perfectly reasonable. Is he suggesting, however, that the opinions or information of the intelligence services should somehow be of less importance than information from another body?

Michael Ellis

No, I am not suggesting anything of the sort. In fact, I have no personal knowledge of those from whom the commission obtains its information. It is for the commission, which has Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat and independent members, to make its own judgments, and we heard from the commission in the letter I mentioned, which I think was from Lord Bew.

Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)

Quite rightly, we should be concerned about Russian money coming into our political system, but my right hon. and learned Friend at the Dispatch Box is right in what he says. We really should point out who the Prime Minister was who let the fox into the chicken coup. Who was it, for instance, in 2003 when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea football club? It was none other than the new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Michael Ellis

Yes, well, I will leave the House to draw its own conclusions about that.

I have to say that the individual who is the subject of this debate is a British citizen. He happens to be of Russian extraction. I understand that he has been in this country since primary school age. It is important to emphasise that this is about British people whose ancestry and heritage should not be relevant. As the owner of a regional newspaper, I understand that the London Evening Standard has raised £300,000 for its Ukraine appeal, £3 million for its AIDSfree campaign, and £13 million for its Dispossessed fund for persons in poverty in London and the Grenfell tragedy. I think that is something to be applauded.

Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)

Let us just get this right: this Lord Lebedev is educated here at primary school and senior school, he does not donate to political parties, he donates to charities and he is a good citizen. That lot over there on the Opposition Benches do not want to be involved in democracy. Is it the case that they just do not like foreign names? [Interruption.]

Michael Ellis

Well, I will invite the House to draw its own conclusion. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. I did say at the beginning that we must have good temper in this debate. Shouting at the Minister or anyone else does not help.

Shaun Bailey

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a bit of chuntering from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), she referred to this as the most xenophobic Conservative party. Can I just say to the hon. Lady that I am certainly not a xenophobe and I take real exception to that? I invite her to withdraw those comments. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Let me make this absolutely clear: nobody in this Chamber is calling anybody xenophobic. If anybody has used phrases like that, stop it now. I am not having it repeated. I am taking it that these things have not been said, because it would be better if they have not. Now, let us keep this at the right level. There is no need for superlative insults to go from one side to the other.

Michael Ellis

To return to where I started, there are so many issues that affect people’s lives that we could be debating today, for example: my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s income tax cuts, the first in 16 years; the 5p cut in fuel duty; or my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary’s plans to make sure that any child who falls behind in English or maths gets the support they need to get back on track. I find it surprising, at the very least, that the Opposition have chosen this particular motion, one that, at best, would compromise the ability of an independent body, which is respected for its independence, to fulfil its mandate simply to make a short-term political point. At worst, it would be negligent of the long-term consequences to the key role of the House of Lords in scrutinising the Executive and being a revising Chamber, and the valued expertise and specialist knowledge and experience of its Members.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)

I think lots of my colleagues would say that we have tabled the motion because it gets to the heart of who we are as a country and a democracy. Given the Prime Minister’s long-term relationship with the Lebedev family, what does the Minister think it looks like not to have published the Intelligence and Security Committee report before the 2019 general election?

Michael Ellis

That is not relevant to this debate. I will tell the hon. Lady what this debate looks like: it looks like the Labour party is focusing on an individual because of who he is. It is doing so unfairly and improperly, and it is seeking to break a process. The reality, as we have heard, is that Labour Members have also supported this individual, socialised with him and sent him messages of support. There is nothing wrong with that. I do not criticise Labour Members if they have sent supportive text messages to Lord Lebedev. I do not criticise anyone in this House for doing so. As the owner of newspapers, no doubt he interacts with a large number of individuals, even though he is a Cross Bencher. What I criticise, and what I urge the House to exercise with considerable caution, is how it looks to attack an individual because of his heritage or because of his extraction. That is the key point.

The other key point to make here is that confidentiality in respect of the process ensures that it operates in the interests of the Labour party and the Conservative party, and that the process of appointing peers of this realm is a fair and dutiful one. The probity and the confidence of the system would be compromised if we broke it. If we said that henceforth we cannot ask people to send in confidence their opinions of individuals whom the Leader of the Opposition or the Conservative party have put forward for a peerage, anyone would know in future that if they wrote to the commission in confidence it could then be out in the public domain. They would not do it and that would damage the process. I would have thought that is rather obvious.

The Government believe that to ensure the ability of the commission to conduct robust vetting and to provide advice that is not compromised, the process should continue to be conducted confidentially, with disclosure at the discretion of the Prime Minister, who is ultimately responsible for making recommendations to Her Majesty on appointments to the Lords, or of the commission, as a body independent of Government and responsible for the vetting of nominations.

Before I sit, I would like to address, if I may, the use today of the Humble Address procedure. The House itself has recognised the need for this process to be used responsibly. The Government response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s 15th report said:

“The Government therefore agrees with PACAC that this device should not be used irresponsibly or over-used.”

The Procedure Committee observed in its May 2019 report:

“The House, by its practice, has observed limitations on the power: it does not use the power to call for papers which Ministers do not have the authority to obtain, nor does it use it to obtain papers of a personal nature.”

That is a fundamental point. Today’s motion is a breach of that process. It demonstrates why the motion is unwise and irresponsible. Motions such as the one before us today crystallise the potential tension between the use of the Humble Address procedure and the responsibility of Ministers not to release information where disclosure would not be in the public interest. We have heard it said that the particular peer himself does not mind whether that information is released, but I submit that that is irrelevant. What we seek to do is protect the process, more than the individual, and that verifies that. The responsibility of Ministers, which I take very seriously, is carefully to balance and weigh up the need for the transparency and openness that we all try to achieve against the equally important, long-standing and competing principle in respect of data protection legislation, which the motion challenges. The Government reiterated, in our response to the Procedure Committee report, the principle of restraint and caution in recognition of the importance of ensuring that the wider public interest is protected.

Matt Western

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time; he is being generous. I am sure we all agree how critical transparency is to our democracy. Would that in part of the process there had been any transparency in the origin or source of Lord Lebedev’s wealth, which is particularly pertinent today and has been for the past five weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Minister may refer to a message texted to Lord Lebedev 18 months ago, but that was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Michael Ellis

Were the hon. Gentleman to look into the matter, he would find that Lord Lebedev has, through his newspapers, publicly criticised the Putin invasion of Ukraine, as one would expect him to do. He has done so on the record.

The motion provides a saving in respect of national security considerations, in that it would allow for the redaction of material

“for the purposes of national security.”

For that reason, I shall not dwell on the national security considerations in depth. I remind the House that Ministers do not comment on national security issues; nevertheless, I stress that weighty public issues are in play that should not be treated lightly.

As I say, when we balance a commitment to transparency against the protection of information when disclosure is not in the public interest, national security is one consideration that the Government must weigh up. Rather than engage in insinuation and speculation—I am afraid that is what has been happening—in respect of matters of national security that must be handled with care and caution, I emphasise that it is and always will be Her Majesty’s Government’s absolute priority to protect the United Kingdom against foreign interference.

It is easy for those in the media or on the Opposition Benches to cast aspersions and invite people to draw assumptions. We cannot answer points about national security in detail, but I emphasise that we in the Government will always give absolute priority to the protection of the United Kingdom from foreign interference. As proof of that, I remind the House that, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, we will introduce new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to disrupt state threats.

In conclusion, the passing of the motion would have long-term and damaging consequences for the system of appointments to the peerage. It would breach the principles of confidentiality that underpin the process; impugn the reputation of an independent body and damage its ability to undertake its role; and impact on the right of individuals not to have their private lives splashed across the media at the whim of the Opposition Front-Bench team.

Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)

If the motion is as potentially damaging as the Minister says it is, why will Government Members not vote against it this afternoon?

Michael Ellis

It is quite normal practice to ignore Opposition motions; they are given the careful attention they deserve. That is common practice.

The Government regret the fact that the official Opposition have sought to use the procedures of the House to call for the release of information which, if released, would have lasting consequences and undermine the established system of appointments to the peerage. That system has served successive Governments and it is vital to preserving the commission’s ability to undertake its role.

Shaun Bailey

In her speech, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) articulated quite an interesting point. I tried to prise an answer out of her in my intervention, when I asked about the idea of the commission perhaps having a veto. Whether or not we disagree with that idea, does my right hon. and learned Friend not find it interesting that the Labour party will not state its definitive position on that? What is his opinion of that? Perhaps it is because Labour wants to use the existing system at some future point to benefit itself.

Michael Ellis

I have the feeling it will be a very long time before the Labour party is in a position to do that from the Government Benches.

The broader point is that the privacy rights of individuals need to be protected. The information shared to facilitate the vetting process is and must be handled carefully. It would be unwelcome for this House to set a precedent that such information is released, because, as I have said, to do so could deter individuals from putting themselves forward for such positions. I urge the House to reflect on whether the motion before us accords with the principle of restraint that Parliament has characteristically applied to the use of its powers. The passing of the motion would risk compromising the ability of an independent body to perform its role and, constitutionally, would impede the role of the Prime Minister in advising the sovereign on appointments. The process is necessarily confidential and the Government think it is unwise for the House to call for such information.